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ORTODOX
from issue no. 09 - 2005

ORTHODOX. The topics of the next theological dialogue with the Catholics

The primacy: a help, not a weight


«The exercise of the primacy, at every level, must serve the life and growth of the Church, and not be an obstacle to it». An interview with Metropolitan Philarete of Minsk


interview with Metropolitan Philarete of Minsk by Gianni Valente


Metropolitan Philarete of Minsk in Bielorussia at the international inter-religious conference entitled “The courage of a humanism 
of peace” organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Lyons from 11 to 13 September 2005

Metropolitan Philarete of Minsk in Bielorussia at the international inter-religious conference entitled “The courage of a humanism of peace” organized by the Community of Sant'Egidio in Lyons from 11 to 13 September 2005

At last, a new start. After years of stalemate, the official theological dialogue between the Church of Rome and the Byzantine Orthodox Churches is setting down on the agenda dates and problems to be faced on the way back to the full visible unity. And this time, the ecumenic Road Map will aim right at the question of the primacy, the nerve point on which all the difficulties that still prevent full sacramental communion between Catholics and Orthodox center.
The next plenary meting should be hosted by the Church of Serbia within 2006. Head of the Orthodox delegation will be, as announced, the Metropolitan of Pergamum Ioannis Zizioulas, who expressed his authoritative reflections on the question of the primacy in detailed fashion in the last number of 30Days.
Zizioulas is a member of the Synod of the Ecumenic Patriarchy and recognized by all as one of the most authoritative living theologians. But can his clear and lucid observations be considered representative of the whole of Orthodoxy? And above all, do they gain the agreement of the exponents of the Patriarchy of Moscow that, as “majority” Orthodox Church, is perforce destined to influence the results of the theological dialogue in definitive manner?
Philarete of Minsk, exarch patriarch of Bielorussia, chairs the theologico-doctrinal Commission of the Holy Synod of the Russian Church Orthodox. He is the proper person to know what the Orthodox beyond the Dnieper think of the primacy. 30Days interviewed him at the meeting organized by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Lyons from 11 to 13 September.

Your Eminence, in the last number of 30Days the Metropolitan of Pergamum Ioannis declared that in order to proceed with the dialogue there must be recognition of the fact that the primacy is a part of the essence of the Church.
PHILARETE Of MINSK: Certainly. The question of the primacy concerns the doctrine of the faith. It is not just a question of human organization. And the problem lies precisely here. Already in the 4th century what is known as the Canon of the Apostles number 34 established that «the bishops must recognize the primus amongst them and do nothing without him... but not even the primus can do anything without the others. So, by means of this unity, God will be glorified in the Holy Spirit».
Ioannis of Pergamum quoted precisely Canon 34 as a good starting point for reopening the dialogue on the question of the primacy between Orthodox and Catholics. Do you go along with the suggestion?
PHILARETE: Canon 34 already pointed out that the primacy is an essential datum in the nature of the Church, as is synodality. At the same time, one can’t repropose this type of question without keeping in mind the way they have been historically applied. It is not a matter of a pre-existing, abstract, atemporal situation…
In short, the problem to discuss is rather «what kind of primacy is being thought of»…
PHILARETE: If one looks at history, it happened that over time the Church of Rome, though without saying so aloud, claimed that the genuine bishop is one who subjected himself to the jurisdiction of the Pope. This subjection, in the form that prevailed in the Church of Rome, seems to have become the source and foundation of the authentic apostolic succession. Whereas, the dignity of all the bishops is perfectly equal, having all received from the Holy Spirit the same grace. I have spoken about this with quite a few Catholic fellow bishops, and in peculiar with some German bishops. They insisted in saying that things are not so, and that Catholic ecclesiology is not so. But on a theological plane even the business of the Filioque confirms it…
In what way?
PHILARETE: East and West both confess the Church one, holy, catholic and apostolic. We confess the same Symbol of apostolic faith, defined by the first early ecumenical councils after a great many complex discussions. So much so that the Fathers of the Council of Ephesus introduced the rule of not recognizing any further addition to the Symbol of Niceno-Constantinopolitan faith. They feared that adding even only one word would be a catastrophe, would restart discussion all over again. But precisely by making reference to his own primatial title, the one who considered himself the «first bishop» was able to sanction the addition of the Filioque to the Symbol of the faith. So that still today in Catholic parishes one professes that the Holy Spirit «proceeds from the Father and the Son»…
20th century icon showing Saint Irenaeus in the crypt of the church of that name 
in Lyons

20th century icon showing Saint Irenaeus in the crypt of the church of that name in Lyons

Ioannis of Pergamum claims that for the Orthodox to grasp the relation between the primacy and the nature of the Church it’s enough to look at its own tradition. In the Orthodox Church there have never been synods without primates.
PHILARETE: The Orthodox Churches recognize the primacy in honor of the Ecumenic Patriarch. In the competition between the ancient patriarchies of the East, Constantinople in the end prevailed and its archbishop assumed the title of ecumenic patriarch. But the primus of Constantinople wanted to be like the primus of Rome… So this primacy also isn’t conceived in univocal fashion. And sometimes the want of unanimity in the interpretation of the Constantinopolitan primacy becomes an obstacle to the normal development of relations even within the Orthodox East. The autocephalous Orthodox Churches at times feel this primacy as a limitation to their own organic development. In all these events human and psychological factors also come into play that can hardly be totally aside. That is why there is need to guarantee that these primatial prerogatives serve the life and growth of the Churches, and don’t end instead by being an obstacle to them.
According to Zizioulas, dialogue on the primacy between Catholics and Orthodox should start from the axiom dear to the Orthodox theologian Afanasieff: where there is the Eucharist, there is the Church one, holy, catholic, apostolic.
PHILARETE: Without doubt. The Eucharist is the sacrament of the Church, the sacrament of sacraments. Wherever the Eucharist is celebrated by a priest consecrated in legitimate manner, according to the canon that the Churches recognize as the legitimate canon, the Church is present and it is possible to live the fullness of the experience of the Church, that is not belonging to an ethno-religious social group, but belonging to Christ himself. No primacy can be exercised at the expense of this catholic fullness of the local Church. Whereas in the Catholic Church the pope projects his ecclesiastical power over the whole earth. And this also complicates the relations with the sister Orthodox Churches.
On that subject, when the Patriarchy of Moscow accused the Catholic Church of encroaching on its proper «canonical territory», it was precisely you who introduced interesting arguments into the debate, that few people in the West noticed...
PHILARETE: The reaction of the Patriarchy of Moscow was discounted as a defensive move by someone who was afraid of losing amounts of ecclesiastical power. But it was above all an indirect testimony that the Patriarchy of Moscow considers its relation with the Church of Rome as a relation between sister Churches, that are fully recognized as such, and they belong to the same Church, one, holy, catholic, apostolic. The very argument of «canonical territory» can only be used towards Churches with which one recognizes one shares the same depositum fidei and the validity of the apostolic succession. We certainly haven’t used it towards the aggressive infiltration of the sects. It was the same argument used by Saint Paul when he wrote in the Epistle to the Romans: «I have made it a point of honor not to proclaim the gospel except where the name of Christ had not yet arrived, so as not to build on another’s foundations».
In Bielorussia, at all events, there have been fewer problems.
PHILARETE: I was the one to raise the question in front of the state bureaucrats responsible for ecclesiastical questions: why – I asked – is there an historical presence of Catholic parishes in Bielorussia and not even one Catholic bishop to govern them? In some cases the presence of a bishop is also a guarantee of order, because when there is no bishop parishes often begin to quarrel… And in fact after a short while three prelates arrived from the Vatican, and among other things told me that there was the idea of sending a bishop to Bielorussia. «There’s no problem», I answered. And so first appeared a bishop, and then Catholic theological schools were also opened. The situation in Russia, was quite different when neither the Patriarch nor the Synod were informed of Vatican intentions, and bishops were also sent to places where historically there were no Catholic episcopal sees. With this I mean to say that a fair number of the problems have arisen because of a question of procedure, for the way the process took place. Perhaps it would have been enough to explain better.
Following the holy Fathers is not a theoretical question for me, but has to do with our life in the Church and with our salvation. They should become a substantial element in pastoral practice and in daily life. During the period of the Community of Sant'Egidio conference in Lyons I was happy to be able to venerate the relics of Saint Irenaeus, who for me is the Father of all the Fathers
Instead, into these querelle, someone on the Catholic side appealed to civic rights, to democracy and even to the need to let the “free market” in religious offerings expand in Russia. What do think of the recourse to such secular arguments to shape relations between sister Churches?
PHILARETE: They’re eye-catching arguments. The truth is that in the break-up of the Soviet social system the Church of Rome has tried to extend in Russia, in mechanical and uncreative fashion, the operational religious-social model that was in those years in use in the West. With the result that in Russia the Catholics have taken on the features of a typical social ghetto, and have been compared to the sects. That is to the many groups that landed with money, that have begun to broadcast ideas that are a travesty of Christianity. Above all this has upset many people who’ve begun to think: this is where we’ve ended up by going along with the ecumenic movement. It was certainly a mistaken deduction. But it also explains the intolerance now felt in Russia for ecumenicalism.
Perhaps, on the path to unity, some commonplaces in the ecumenic dialogue look old-hat. Whereas you have stressed the importance of always looking together at the Fathers of the Church.
PHILARETE: The motto of our theologians in the first quarter of the 20th century was: forward, toward the Fathers. The faith of the Church is one and immutable, because the Church is the unity of the life of grace that comes unbroken down to us from the holy apostles and from the holy Fathers. The Church is the Church of the apostles, it is the Church of the Fathers. Instead now in the Church the Fathers are studied as people worthy of all respect but as if they had nothing to offer to everyday Christian life. There is an academico-decorative approach to them, at most they’re considered as a good source of quotations or as a field of study to be left to the scrutiny of the few cognizant. Instead, following the holy Fathers is not a theoretical question for me, but has to do with our life in the Church and with our salvation. They should become a substantial element in pastoral practice and in daily life. During the period of the Communion of Sant’Egidio conference in Lyons I was happy to be able to venerate the relics of Saint Irenaeus, who for me is the Father of all the Fathers.
As chairman of the theological Commission of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church what do you think of the approach of Pope Ratzinger to relations between the Church of Rome and Churches of East?
PHILARETE: I fulfil the task of chairman of the theological Commission only out of obedience. I seek only to bring together people so they can work together. I don’t know in detail the theological works that the new Pope wrote when he was a theologian. But I know that he is a great figure and a great mind. For that matter, the Holy Inquisition has always been led by intelligent people… (laughter).


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